Picher, Oklahoma, is located in Ottawa County in the northeast corner of the state near the Kansas-Missouri border. This was once a popular mining town for lead and zinc. This town supplied ammunition for World Wars I and II. Although a small town throughout its history, in it's glory days the population was nearly 10,000 residents, and that was all the way back in the 1920s and 1930s! By the 1970s the last mine shut down, and people began to move elsewhere as the town changed. By the year 2000 the population dwindled to just over 1600. This town's racial diversity was not very broad, having over 75% white residents reported in the 2000 census.
The heavy mining and industry of Tar Creek left the town filled with chat piles, which are mounds of waste left over from the mining process that contain lead dust, cadmium, and other dangerous substances. This dust scatters and blows throught not only Picher, but also nearby towns, and has created an environmental disaster and a dangerous location for anyone to live. Children in Picher have been found to have learning diabilities, nerve damage, otherwise compromised health (including elevated cancer rates), and other serious problems.
More than 50 million tons of mine waste are left in many dozens of piles over a 40 square mile area. Some of these piles are several hundred feet high and others span the length of several football fields. The Tar Creek site is a portion of the Tri-State Mining District. In 1983 the city was declared a Superfund site. "Superfund" is the government's name for programs to clean up hazardous waste sites. Superfund is implemented and managed by a division of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER).
Of Superfund, Picher, Oklahoma, Superfund Site Disaster states that "cleanup process is complex. It involves the steps taken to assess sites, place them on the National Priorities List, and establish and implement appropriate cleanup plans. This is the long-term cleanup process. In addition, the Agency has the authority to conduct removal actions where immediate action needs to be taken; to enforce against potentially responsible parties; to ensure community involvement; to involve states; and ensure long-term protectiveness."
The Environmental Protection Agency has plugged more than 80 wells and reduced some of the contaminant release. Residential yards were cleaned up, removing the lead and other contaminants, with help from CVS Pharmacy and grassroots organizations such as LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded). Some of the chat piles were reduced as well. Despite all the efforts, Picher remains one of the most highly polluted areas in the country.
The shores and soils of Tar Creek are an orange color and polluted with lead and other heavy metals. Much of the water is acidic and other wise polluted and virtually no fish exist anymore in the waters of the area. Sinkholes are spotted in many locations with more expected to develop, thus potentially weakening or collapsing any buildings and structures in their paths.
Between the chat piles, sinkholes, and groundwater contamination, the entire town needed to be closed down. In April 2009, residents voted to close the public school system. Even the post office closed in July 2009. The city ceased municipal operations just a few months later.
Gary Linderman, the city's pharmacist, was featured in People in May 2007. He stated that he would stay in Picher as long as anyone else was left there who may need him and vowed to be the last person out of the city.
Picher is considered one of the most toxic areas in the United States. All residents and businesses of Picher (including residents of nearby towns Cardin and Hockerville) were given federal checks as a source of funds to voluntarily leave the town and relocate to a safer area to live. The adjacent town of Treece, Kansas, became increasingly worried, so in late 2009, Congress voted to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to disperse relocation funds to Treece residents as well.
The town is supposed to finally be cleaned up now. Many of the chat piles will be sold and used in asphalt mix or concrete for construction projects such as roads and bridges. Chat is safe to use when mixed into concrete or asphalt, and it's unlikely for any dust to spread due to winds, rain, etc.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the mine companies that created this devastation. Attorneys for the mining companies state that the companies had no idea or anticipation of the health and environmental damage that would result years down the road after years of mining and that the companies operated "by state-of-the-art standards of the day," according to The Results of Mining at Tar Creek Environmental Case Study by NRE 492 Group 5.
In 2008 a strong tornado ripped through the town of Picher, disturbing piles of mine waste and toppling dozens of remaining homes and other structures. Nearly ten deaths resulted. Due to its dangerous toxicity, its unlikely the town will receive any funds to rebuild in the near future.